How to Receive Free College as a Texas Firefighter

Updated on January 25, 2018
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Daniel has over a decade of Texas EMS and public service experience.

Free College for Texas Firefighters

Texas firefighters are granted Fire Science tuition exemption by state law.

Many firefighters, however, never take advantage of the $10,000 to $80,000+ benefit available to them.

This article breaks down how to receive free college as a Texas firefighter.

Most firefighters only need a department affiliation and advanced certification to be eligible. It's worth it to understand how a $2,000 certificate and $40,000+/year job can be the key to a free PhD.

It's true, it's good to be a Texas Firefighter.

What is fire science tuition exemption?

Fire science tuition exemption is a state law allowing eligible firefighters tuition free courses in fire science curriculum. What constitutes "fire science curriculum" is discussed later in this article.

The intent of this benefit is to better equip Texas firefighters in both their expertise and public service management.

In short, the Texas State Legislature changed state law in order to produce more educated public servants.

This benefit is legally available via Texas Education Code 54.353, which states:

"The governing board of an institution of higher education shall exempt from the payment of tuition and laboratory fees any student enrolled in one or more courses offered as part of a fire science curriculum..."

The keys to receiving this benefit are being an eligible firefighter and enrolling in an eligible program. College For All Texans is the best hub for this information.

Summarized:

  • The Texas State Legislature wants educated public servants.
  • Texas state law exempts tuition so firefighters can become more educated.
  • The public benefits from this education.

Who is eligible for tuition exempt education?

The eligibility list for tuition exemption is simple and found in Texas Education Code 54.353 :

  1. Be a paid firefighter affiliated with a municipal department.
  2. - OR - be an active member of an eligible volunteer fire department for at least one year.
  3. Hold an SFFMA Advanced or TCFP Firefighter II Certification.
  4. Enroll in an approved fire science education program.

In short, if you are a paid firefighter or an experienced volunteer firefighter with TCFP certification, you are probably eligible for tuition exemption.

The catch with volunteer eligibility is being affiliated with a department that participates in the Texas Emergency Services Retirement System or a retirement system established under the Texas Local Fire Fighters Retirement Act. Check with your local department to see if they participate in either of these programs.

If your volunteer department is not a participant, it may be beneficial to explore an affiliation with an approved retirement system for multiple reasons.

To learn about additional Texas Volunteer Firefighter benefits and more about the Texas Emergency Services Retirement System, check out this previous article.

What is considered Fire Science Curriculum?

Fire Science Curriculum is a contested term. To minimize confusion, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board provides an updated list of approved Fire Science Programs.

In 2006, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott released the state's official opinion defining Fire Science Curriculum. Prior to this opinion, many colleges and universities questioned if any of their programs were eligible due to not having a Fire Science education path.

Attorney General Abbott deferred defining Fire Science to the Texas Commission on Fire Protection (TCFP). The TCFP defines Fire Science as a course of study that is primarily related to:

  • Fire Service
  • Emergency Medicine
  • Emergency Management
  • Public Administration

The state released this opinion:

"We believe, therefore, that 'fire science' is a technical term that refers to courses related to fire service, emergency medicine, emergency management, or public administration. When read in context, then, section 54.208 uses 'fire science' to refer to those courses that fall within a designated fire science curriculum, as well as a course that is primarily related to tire service, emergency medicine, emergency management, or public administration, regardless of whether that course falls within a curriculum designated 'fire science.'"

While Fire Science is defined, controversy between educational institutions and tuition exemption is still at play.

In 2011, the Dallas Morning News released an article describing how a Dallas Firefighter and the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) disagreed about tuition exemption regarding a graduate program in public administration. A lawsuit was filed two weeks later asking for the court to decide if UTA would be required to provide the exemption.

You may notice in the approved programs link above that UTA is still listed as "No Programs Available".

Although the curriculum is defined as public administration, not every school has to provide the exemption based on how they classify their degree programs.

It's always best to stick to the approved programs list prior to making an tuition exempt education plans.

Do all Texas schools provide tuition exemption?

The tuition exemption for fire science curriculum is only available at specific public institutions. Private institutions and some public institutions are not required by law to participate.

Per the state's official opinion, "Section 54.208 is applicable to all 'state institutions of collegiate rank supported in whole or in part by public funds.'"

If a public institution is not listed on the approved table, it's best to contact them directly to see if the tuition exemption is available.

What kind of programs are available?

This is the most exciting part of the fire science curriculum:

A lot of opportunities are available.

Paramedicine, Emergency Management, Public Administration, and even Physician Assistant studies are available to qualified Texas firefighters. The key is finding a program that fits your specific circumstances and pursuing is appropriately.

Below is a table surveying some of the approved listed programs:

School
Program
Blinn College
AAS, Paramedic
Central Texas College
Homeland Security & Emergency Management Certificate
Collin County Community College
AAS, Fire Officer Certification Specialization
Houston Community College
AAS, Fire & Arson Investigation
Tarrant County College District
AAS, Occupational Health and Safety Technology
Lamar University
BA, Political Science
Sam Houston State University
Master of Public Administration
Texas A&M University
MS, Safety Engineering
Texas A&M International University
BSN, Nursing
Texas Southern University
Doctor of Pharmacy Curriculum
The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
Master of Physician Assistant Studies
University of North Texas
PhD, Public Administration & Management

As stated, this is just a survey of programs available.

As a Texas Firefighter, it isn't a stretch to garner your undergrad and graduate degree tuition free while working full time for your department.

Be sure to check the approved list and contact the school beforehand to explore any additional availability or exclusions to the listed programs.

How do I use this benefit?

Applying for tuition exemption is simple, if you give yourself plenty of time before enrollment.

Each school provides a section regarding tuition exemption application on their webpages. Here are examples from Sam Houston State University and Blinn College.

Admissions offices are not new to this process and will be able to assist in navigation. The key is staying in touch with them and having all required documentation available beforehand.

Generally, most schools require the following:

  1. Meet all admission requirements and prerequisites for the college or university.
  2. Meet all program requirements and prerequisites.
  3. Apply for tuition exemption well before the semester start date (no last minute attempts).
  4. Be able to produce documentation pertaining to your certification and department affiliation.
  5. Meet academic and credit hour compliance standards.

The process can be frustrating if you're in a rush. Most schools are extremely helpful and will guide you through the process if given an appropriate amount of time.

If you're unsure about your school's process, simply go to a search engine, like Google, and type in, "(School Name) fire science tuition exemption".

An example of SHSU's exemption application process.
An example of SHSU's exemption application process.

Can I lose this benefit?

As with most good things, restrictions must be placed due to those that abuse it.

In April 2014, new restrictions were placed on firefighters using the fire science tuition exemption:

  • An approved GPA must be maintained.
  • No excessive credit hours.

Some firefighters were using the benefit and either failing courses or not obtaining a degree. Tuition exemption is the state allowing firefighters to receive a six digit cut from public institutions. In order to protect this privilege for future generations, restrictions were placed to ensure public assets would not be wasted.

To better understand the standards for continuing in a tuition exempt program, it is best to contact a designated school adviser.

Summary

Texas Firefighters have an amazing opportunity through the fire science tuition exemption.

Through state law, specific public institutions provide free programs from paramedicine to a PhD in order to grow the expertise of our public servants. Texas firefighters just have to choose an approved program, meet a school's requirements, and maintain an appropriate course track and GPA.

Best of luck to those pursuing this awesome state benefit.

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